Stop STOP signs for Earth’s sake

It had been a little while since I last heard from my ‘green’ friend, so in case her homemade bathroom tissue recycling plant had exploded, I thought it may be worth checking on her.  She answered her cellphone with an expletive and without pausing for breath, she announced that she wasn’t in the mood to talk as “I’m stuck in traffic driving in town breathing in all these fumes and you just know there’s going to be nowhere to park this truck and my mouth tastes horrible because the batteries have gone in my toothbrush” followed by another expletive and ”we have got to get this traffic off the roads and cut congestion.”  She then told me that anyway she wasn’t going to talk to me because I had called her a ‘green-o-crite’ and ended the call before I could explain why.

I thought of this yesterday when I was driving back home and realised that for all their sound bites about global warming and congestion, Governments are not serious about it.  For if they were, they wouldn’t have just forced me to come to a complete stop on a 40mph road because there a chance that Ethel would want to pull out of her little side street and it wouldn’t be fair to make the residents of those five houses wait for a gap in traffic.  So the traffic planners had made it a compulsory stop in all directions and I had to wait for the girl in front of me to stop shaving her legs and actually start off again.  So did the other five vehicles between her car and mine.  And of course, Ethel wasn’t actually pulling out of her little side street that day because she had lost her false teeth and couldn’t go out without them.  But, just in case she did, 12 vehicles had come to a complete stop, inch forward and stop again, just because some faceless person (probably Ethel’s nephew in line for a nice inheritance) had got out a can of white paint and painted a white stripe across the road.

Anyone who drives in the US or Europe will come across the compulsory stop.  Some of them make sense, for example when at the end of the road where you are about to drive over the cliff or into Ethel’s front parlour.  But there are many many more random stop signs that really could just disappear overnight and help reduce emissions and cut congestion at the same time.  If I didn’t know better, I would swear that the local traffic planners had shares in International Paints or needed that free paintbrush that came with the jumbo sized can of white paint in the local Home Depot.  And this is the paradox:  it’s almost universally known that stopped and slow moving traffic produces more emissions because the internal combustion engine is more efficient at higher speeds and congestion is made much worse by endless waits at traffic signals or having to stop because Ethel needs Fixodent for her false teeth.  Yet we get more and more compulsory stop signs.  It’s not because drivers don’t know it’s a bad idea to pull out into speeding traffic either.

The road to one hotel I use half a mile long and has two lanes in either direction.  It terminates at a four way intersection that is access to the hotel, an apartment complex and the rear entrance to a shopping complex on each of the other three legs respectively.  If you use this road you are unlucky if you see two other vehicles.  Yet half way up this road is an entrance to an office building with a compulsory stop sign in each direction.  And if you miss ignore the stop sign, the very nice police car that sits 100yds further up will do its imitation of a sound and light show and the very nice policeman inside will get out and give you a very nice ticket to appear in court for failing to stop.  It’s a good location for him as he can sit nice and quiet and meet his monthly quota because of a white line across the road.  Just realized, this kills three birds with one stone: It gives the policeman his monthly bonus, keeps the court system working and of course helps the government as well.  The extra fuel you have pointlessly used to stop and start again means you have to buy more, therefore paying more in taxation to the state and the federal government.

You think this is fanciful?  No.  Let me quote an example from the UK:  It took the incoming Administration to get the Department of Transport to allow traffic signals to be phased to allow free movement of traffic by installing sensors to trigger a succession of green lights or ‘green wave’.  Previously the Department for Transport (DfT) had discouraged the systems which reduce fuel use and thus resulting in less tax being paid to the Treasury.  But both Environmental and motoring groups say carbon emissions will be reduced following the official policy change.  A BBC news report states “But now, rather than seeing green wave systems as a ‘cost’ to the public purse, the DfT views them as a benefit” and quotes the Department as saying “Urban traffic control systems, like green wave, help tackle congestion and vehicle emissions in urban areas, and a number are already being progressed as local major schemes.”

It’s after reading this that I call most single issue green campaigners ‘Green-o-crites’ and doubt the willingness of governments to really stave of global warming.  For instead of trying to make me carry paper bags from the grocery store, why can’t we see a simple campaign to ease emissions through simple low cost measures – like removing some of the more pointless and totally unnecessary Stop signs on our highways?  I am sure that there are other spin-offs as well, for the redundant aluminium signs could be melted down for recycling (it takes 20 times as much energy to produce aluminium from ore) and a lot of the estimated $115 billion and 3.9 billion gallons of fuel that was wasted through congestion in the US in 2009 could be saved.  These figures are from a US government authorized study that also estimates the cost to the individual was $808 and 34 hours annually in the same year.

So perhaps the stopping of the stop sign could be one of the more easy targets for my green friend. You can even produce a campaign slogan for it, ‘Stop-signs Trouble Our Planet’.  Traffic congestion cut, emissions cut, aluminum production cut, oil production cut, less deep sea drilling  and I can get to the grocery store and back with my plastic shopping bag full of steaks a lot quicker.  Of course, that is assuming that all those so called environmental activists can actually stop attending conferences in Cancun and campaign for the real things that will help, not insisting that we cover the nation with windmills and stop whatever is the bete noire of the day.

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German Nuclear Meltdown

Another day, yet another conversation with my bathroom tissue recycling friend, only this time she was phoning me to tell me some news and not berate me as usual because I was killing the earth by actually driving my car and still insisted in using plastic shopping bags.  “Great news… I’m moving to Germany – and I love Sauerkraut!”  she breathlessly announced, “but I have a question.. What power adaptor will I need for my electric toothbrush?”  Now as I know these things, I instinctively replied “anything compatible with CEE 7/16 – 2.5amp 250volt ungrounded or possibly CEE 7/4 ‘Schuko’ 16amp 250volt grounded” and quickly ended the call before she could start complaining that my clothes dryer had just made a penguin homeless.

I will admit that I have a few good memories about Germany, especially the time I drove into the country without my passport, got kidnapped by some Germans in Italy (well, that was my excuse for being falling down drunk in a bar) and driving way too fast on their autobahns.  I even have a liking for Berlin, especially the tracks with Dave Gilmour on guitar and the love theme for Top Gun.  I was thinking about this and how I didn’t think that Stuttgart was ready for the sight of recycled bathroom tissue drying in the sun when I realized that I didn’t know why my friend was intending to leave.  I was sure that they hadn’t suddenly voted in another mad head of state again (like an Austrian ex-catholic choirboy) and the 101st Airborne were working for Exxon somewhere hot, so I started looking on the interwebs.

It took all of a couple of seconds to find the reason.  Apparently, Germany has announced that the country is going to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 and proudly states that the country will now be at the forefront of renewable and alternative energy research.  All because the Japanese nuclear power plants did what they were designed to do and survived one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history and have so far refused to blow up, despite the best efforts of a tsunami that inflicted the severe damage.  Whilst there have been small earthquakes in the North Sea (that’s the bit of water between the UK and the rest of Europe for our geographically challenged readers), research published in 2006 concluded that even a mega-quake and Norway falling into the sea would only produce light flooding on Germany’s northern shores.  Bit of a difference between high tides and a tsunami.   Still, better safe than sorry.

So in ten years Germany is going to switch off nearly a quarter of its generating capacity, replacing  it with renewable energy and reduced demand through energy efficiencies.  Ok, highly commendable and maybe on paper it works: You switch off 23%, you double the current share of renewables to give you 17% and you reduce demand by 10%, leaving a surplus of 4%.  But whilst this may fool the local kindergarten math class, if it is really is that simple, why on earth did it take politicians, some of them who will probably be educated, over 14 hours in an overnight sitting to come up with this conclusion?   (Just a thought: this has nothing to do with a rightwing politician facing political defeat at the hands of the Green Party has it?)

I am not a trained scientist or economist, but even I can see a few problems.  A quick check, remembering that nearly half of Germany’s current renewable energy comes from wind – you must have seen some of those 75-240ft towers with 90-180ft diameter rotors – to double the amount from wind would require at best another 18,000 wind-turbines, covering an area roughly twice the size of Berlin.  Then you would need the national grid to be renewed to carry the power, with pylons and transmission towers springing up around the country.  So, in order to eliminate nuclear power you will need to cover the country with power lines, windmills, bio-mass plants and photovoltaic cells and hope that everyone is going to reduce their power consumption to make up the shortfall.  (Just a note:  France currently generates almost twice as much as its electricity from renewable sources than Germany and still has 58 nuclear plants.)  And no-one has counted the cost:  A 2mw wind-turbine costs roughly $3.5million installed at 2007 prices.  So, for wind turbines alone, Germany faces a spend of over $6.3bn and remember that just because you switch a nuclear plant off does not mean it disappears – you still have to decommission it.  And that costs too, so does the grid and the replacement infrastructure.  But the biggest problem will be telling all those nice ‘green’ Germans to stop using their electric toothbrushes and use their hand motions for something else instead.

I phoned my friend back.  “Forget the toothbrush – you will not need it.  There will be no power, toothbrushes will be banned in order to save electricity, you will not be able to afford the windfarm taxes and the Ruhr will be covered in a blanket of smog from the coal powered electricity plants used to make up the shortfall,” followed by an explanation of the enormity of the problems Germany industry is going to face, although this may be good news for me as I dislike BMWs and the Mercedes I want is made in Mexico anyway.   Sounding rather disappointed, my friend hurried off the phone and I am sure she said she was busy knitting some beefburger or was it Bratwurst substitute?

My mother used to warn me to be careful what I wished for, just in case my wishes came true.  It’s a pity she didn’t tell the German green parties the same.  Because now they have their wishes granted and the Chancellor is going to switch off nuclear power.  So instead of being really nice to the planet and reducing their carbon footprint (nuclear generation produces no CO2), they are going to cover Germany with steel, build transmission lines everywhere and get the country to run out of electricity to recharge their toothbrushes and cars.  Well maybe that’s a good thing, because at least we’ll know where all the green-o-crites will be because they wouldn’t dream of flying would they? (unless of course it’s to that world climate conference held somewhere hot and remote, like a four star resort in Mexico)  In the interim, China will start manufacturing all the things German industry used to make and the world will start looking at the German government wondering if they have yet another mad Chancellor on their hands – or just maybe a really clever woman who is going to put an end to the protests against nuclear power once and for all by calling the Green Party’s bluff.

Green plastic

I am not in the habit of kicking a man when he’s down.  I always follow my mother’s advice that a double tap from a nine millimetre takes far less energy and you don’t risk scuffing your Jimmy Choos.  (But assuming that some nice airport TSA official had confiscated that pretty little Beretta PX4 9mm along with your hair-conditioner and under-arm spray, my mother recommended that a quick stamp to the eye with a Jimmy Choo stiletto may work just as well AND you can always get them re-tipped afterwards.)  So when my friend who knits her own sandals and recycles her bathroom tissue called back to say “thank you” for going green and helping save the planet, I didn’t really have the heart to tell her that my efforts involved lots of steaks, as I am sure I heard that she crochets her own meat out of soybeans.  Especially as her concern for the planet had set me off thinking about what I could do to help and I was positive that she would not like me for saying that from now on, I would be using plastic grocery bags in preference to paper.

I can remember a few years ago standing in line to checkout my groceries at a fairly good supermarket in California.  As my goods were being scanned, a young assistant walked over to bag my purchases for me and automatically said “paper or plastic?”  The answer should have been really obvious  as my purchases included a fair mix of frozen and tinned food together with freshly sprayed vegetables (the better stores in California spray a fine mist of water over their vegetables to stop them drying out.)  I didn’t want to explain the tensile strength of wet paper bags and the anatomical contortions I need to go through in order to carry handle-less paper sacks from my car, or explain that my frozen goods and fresh veg would soak the bag that would then tear open and result in me having to chase dropped and rolling groceries across a parking lot or end up crawling under the large SUVs and minivans to extract bruised fruit and dented tins.  So because the answer was fairly obvious and I didn’t want to insult the girl’s intelligence, I thought I would make a joke.  “Is it paper or plastic that kills dolphins?” I asked with a smile.  “The plastic ones,” was the immediate and rather earnest response.

There are whole list of things that you shouldn’t say in public and there are a whole lot of words that have become taboo. Well, it appears that there is a whole lexicon of things that you cannot say to the nice young lady who has just asked you if you wanted a plastic or paper shopping bag even though it was patently clear that the answer would be plastic.  The ‘save the whale’ and ‘Greenpeace’ stickers on her uniform should have given it way.  So in hindsight, replying “Plastic then, because that kills dolphins and I hate them” was not the best thing to say.  From the look she gave me, you would have sworn that I had just suggested that I was going to sell her grandmother into white slavery and said that her mother was a girl with professional virtues.  I really remembered that look as I unpacked the damaged tins, crushed boxes, split tomatoes and leaking bottles from the plastic bags when I got home.

But, seriously. Much to the disappointment of my friend who knits her own toilet paper and the girl at the cashiers in California, it could be that the much maligned and hated humble plastic shopping bag may be a better option if you care for the environment.  For a start, think about where paper bags come from and how you make them.  Yes, the answer is trees, but you cannot go into the forest and pick ready made bags from the Safeway tree.  Most paper is made from pulpwood, from the bits of trees left over from timber production, approxiametly 28% of all tree use in the US.  But to make pulp, you still have to cut down a tree and whilst it may be replaced by new saplings, you cannot tell me that a couple of twigs in the ground are going to absorb the 10lbs of CO2 that a mature tree absorbs each year. Oh, and half of the dry weight of a tree is carbon, just waiting to oxidise and get into the atmosphere.   But when it comes to the pulping process…. This is where the fun stuff starts

The majority of wood pulp (93% in the UK) is made by literally cooking the wood in various chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphates, and then bleaching it with chlorine  in a process that  is both highly water and energy hungry, in fact it takes almost 400% more energy to make a paper bag than a plastic one and you don’t use water in plastic film production.  There are also numerous studies into the environmental deficits caused by pulp mills and the US EPA has cited that pulp mills are one of the biggest producers of air pollution.  It’s no good shouting ‘recycled’ either:  it takes 91% less energy to recycle a plastic bag and don’t forget that at a pulp mill it is necessary to remove the ink from your waste paper, producing volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. A report by Health Canada from 2007 states that 47 pulping mills released over a million tonnes of chlorinated organic compounds into the aquatic environment in one year.   On top of all this, it’s been estimated that you require seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as one truck full of plastic bags.  It is also estimated that paper forms over half of the volume of landfills, yet plastics less than one tenth.

I know that plastic is made from oil and gas, and yes I know that oil is not renewable, unlike trees.  But only two percent of output is used to make plastic films from which your shopping bag is produced.  But like paper, plastics can also be recycled and again and this is becoming more common, according to US industry sources, there was a 24% increase in plastic bags recovered in 2006 over 2005. But I am not going into the merits or demerits of oil exploration, production and pollution here: there is too much, from warfare, global politico- economics, deep sea drilling and the occasional accidents that have environmentalists in a spin for years.  I am well aware that plastic bags never degrade and have been found all over the globe, from the Arctic to Antarctica.  But that is the fault of humans for littering.

I started this piece by saying that I am not going to kick a man when he is down and I am not.  I am not going to tell my bathroom tissue recycling friend that I prefer plastic bags at the grocery because in a couple of weeks I think that my friend will be very pleased that I will have stopped using bags at the grocery full stop.  But not out of choice, it will be because I will have stopped using grocery shops.  All my cupboards are now so full of ‘bags for life’ that I haven’t any room left for food.

Be green, eat a cow

I recently received an alarmed phone call from one of my friends, you know, the one who knits her own sandals and recycles her bathroom tissue to save the planet.  Breathlessly, she asked what I was going to do to stop some Pacific Island with 23 people living on it from drowning because they are only 6 inches above sea-level and in 100 years their house will be flooded, all because I drive a car and I am single-handedly causing global warming.  I thought about this for all of two seconds.  “Help buy their grandchildren a house on higher ground” would be the obvious answer, but I knew that my friend would want more.  So, I decided that I would help by going ‘green’.  That’s right, I have decided that I will do my bit for the planet – or at least try to minimize the damage caused by the extra electricity I have used since I started writing, especially as I write slowly as I know a lot of you cannot read very fast.

Realising that locking my pet hamsters on their wheel would only provide enough energy to recharge my electric toothbrush and anyway, I would probably have to spend more on feeding them, I thought I would aim bigger.  As there is some law against putting my children on a treadmill to generate electricity, it was no good; I will have to think of something else.   But when I asked for some uranium suitable to start nuclear fission at my local Home Depot (sort of like B&Q in the UK, but at least Home Depots have staff, even if they don’t know what on earth they sell),  I got arrested, all because I wanted to build a nuclear reactor in my back garden (apparently, you have to be a bona fide terrorist or an evil dictatorship to be able to buy uranium and, anyway, I can’t have an atomic power station where I live because I am not on an active seismic fault line and I will not be hit by a tsunami. I phoned my friend back and asked her is there another way to be green.  “Just offset your carbon” she replied, “that way you can do it and be guilt free.”

This sounded promising and a little bit of thinking later gave me the perfect way to go about it.  I realised that the best way was to eat a cow.  Yes, I do mean all those tasty rib-eye steaks, New York strips, short ribs and tenderloins, followed by roasts and ground meat dishes or if I want to eat the whole animal, the lips, hoofs, ears and connective tissue that is used to make my local supermarket’s ‘premium’ 100% Beef burgers.  That is it.  Eat a cow to save the planet.  Now before anyone says don’t be silly, let’s have a look at the facts.  The whole issue of global warming first gained prominence in the late 1980s and apparently summers are getting hotter every year.  It may just be a coincidence, but there is a correlation between eating cows and atmospheric carbon dioxide.  The consumption of beef in the United States, according to the US Department of Agriculture, had declined by almost 17% between 1985 and 2006.  Compare that to atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, by the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.  Carbon Dioxide measurements grew from 1.45ppm in 1985 to 1.72ppm in 2006, a rise of roughly 18%.  Wow.  That would be good enough for Al Gore and probably meet the scientific rigour of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so that should satisfy me. 

But realizing that Al Gore had used two sources to make his hockey stick graph and a subsequent fortune, I thought it prudent to do a little more research, especially as I would like to be sure that eating a cow was a good thing and not just me running away with the thought of a rare steak, served with all the trimmings and cooked to perfection on the open grill at the Big Texan Steakhouse in Amarillo.  So, I thought I would check to see if cows were harmful.  Well, even my limited search has revealed that instead of picketing a coal plant, any self-respecting friend of the earth should be camping out in the farmer’s fields pointing out to anyone listening just how much potential a cow has to damage the atmosphere.  Don’t be fooled by those sweet eyes: Ethel really is just a big dangerous cloven hoofed beast that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has blamed for crimes such as poisoning rivers, polluting drinking water, producing acid rain, desertification, destroying forests and of course, contributing to global warming.  See the 2006 report, ISBN 978-92-5-105571-7, that I quote here: “Livestock contribute 9% of CO2 emissions, 37% of methane and 65% of nitrous oxide.”  More impact than road transport, especially when you consider methane is twenty times worse than carbon dioxide in respect of global warming.  (I almost forgot to mention that livestock produces 68% of ammonia emissions, linked to acid rain and that dewy-eyed monster is also a serial killer and causes traffic congestion.)

So let’s break this down a bit.  Cows are serial killers?  Yes, cows have killed 18 and injured 481 people in one eight year period in the UK alone, with 4 people killed in only eight weeks.  Take this traffic report from Udaipur City: “Jagdish Mandir , HathiPole, Delhi Gate,  Sector-13,14 ( housing main roads), Town hall, Thokar Choraha, Sector 3,4,5,6 (Hiran Magri) , FatehPura (crossroad), PratapNagar (highway)… stray cattle occupy the roads and it’s too troublesome to travel through these roads.”  But it is the emissions that are crucial:   a cow emits almost 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of smog-forming gases known as volatile organic compounds each day, 59lbs of manure, 110kgs of methane, 242lbs!  So each cow produces the equivalent of 5,070 lbs of CO2 a year. Over two tons!  According to the US EPA, the average car doing 21miles to the US gallon produces 11,000lbs a year.  Therefore, I can drive for six months just by eating a cow a year.

I just did a quick calculation:  the average cow yields about 450lb of lean meat.  My family buys on average 8-9lb of meat a week, about 468lb, say a whole cow.  So as we already eat a cow a year, all I have to do is fire up the Barbie, dig out the patio heaters and with only 84lbs of steaks on a carcass, my friends will soon help rid the world of a second beast in less than a summer.  And with carbon offset at about $25.00 per ton, you will owe me $59.  In the interim, I’m off to phone my friends in India to tell them that I have a solution to global warming and their traffic problems so would they like to buy some A1 steak sauce and a hibachi…………